Since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve become acutely aware of the need for evidence to address constantly evolving societal challenges. But not all evidence is reliable evidence. COVID-19 also revealed a significant prevalence of misinformation.
The strength of any policy or action depends on the quality of information available.
Post-COVID-19, the report calls for ‘a renewed focus on best evidence’ and sets out a bold mission: ‘Now is the time to systematize the aspects of using evidence that are going well and address the many shortfalls, which means creating the capacities, opportunities and motivation to use evidence to address societal challenges and putting in place the structures and processes to sustain them.’
Here we present an overview of the main points and strengths of the Evidence Commission Report 2022.
One of the report’s biggest strengths lies in the fact that it was developed by a diverse group of 25 commissioners, each bringing different perspectives. Commissioners include public servants, politicians, Indigenous leaders, non-governmental organisation leaders, scientists and policy advisors from multiple regions.
The report was also developed in an inclusive manner. Drafts of the 52 sections were shared publicly to obtain feedback on how these sections could be strengthened to initiate action.
Rather than focusing on single categories of challenges (like pandemics), the report unpacks two different ways that we can look at societal challenges.
The first is by the level or sector at which the challenge is typically addressed, for example, a domestic sector (like failing health systems or schools), domestic cross-cultural (like growing levels of inequality), and those that require global or regional coordination (like climate change).
The second is by the complexity of the underlying problem – which is on a scale from simple (cause and effect are clear) to complicated, complex or ‘wicked’.
Decisions and decision-makers
The report identifies four types of key decision-makers who are actively involved in addressing societal challenges: government policymakers, organisational leaders (such as businesses or non-governmental organisations), professionals (such as doctors, engineers, etc.) and citizens.
Recognising that decisions are made in different ways – sometimes on impulse, sometimes after much reflection or deliberation – the report suggests a series of steps that can help make decision-making processes explicit: (1) understanding a problem and its causes, (2) selecting an option for addressing the problem, (3) identifying implementing considerations, (4) monitoring implementation and evaluating impacts.
Identifying forms of evidence
‘Evidence’ in the report is used as an abbreviation for ‘research evidence’, although the commissioners recognise that evidence can take many other forms (such as an individual’s life experience) and that evidence is often just one factor in decision-making.
Under the umbrella of research evidence, the report describes eight different types of evidence typically encountered in decision-making: ranging from evaluation evidence and modelling to behavioural research and qualitative insights. These are then mapped to the proposed decision-making steps.
The report also recognises that local and global challenges require different forms of evidence, which may then be supported by other forms of analysis, such as policy, system or political analysis.
The report follows with a pertinent discussion on evidence quality. Evidence should not be relied on without testing its validity for use in decision-making, it urges. The report makes an important statement on how publication in a peer-reviewed journal cannot be blindly accepted as a criterion for deciding on the reliability of a study.
Decision-makers must differentiate between different types of evidence – such as a single study, expert opinion, an expert panel or a literature review, each of which brings with them their own risk of biases and prejudices.
After a thematic analysis of recommendations from 48 global commission reports since 2016, the commissioners provide carefully considered recommendations aimed at ‘those best positioned to make the changes necessary to ensure that evidence is consistently used to address societal challenges’: multilateral organisations, national and subnational policymakers, organisational leaders, professionals and citizens, evidence intermediaries and evidence producers.
Each stakeholder group has a specific set of recommendations. But it is worth highlighting the two overarching recommendations, aimed at all stakeholders.
The first is a ‘wake-up call’ – a reminder that ‘decision-makers too often rely on inefficient (and sometimes harmful) informal feedback systems. The result is poor decisions that lead to failures to improve lives, avoidable harm to citizens, and wasted resources.’
The second is a call for a ‘new standard of asking for evidence’ – one that asks about the quality and applicability of the evidence. The report emphasises that when addressing societal challenges in the future it is imperative that there be greater attention given to evidence-support systems and constant and ongoing attention to evidence implementation systems within governments.
By using the prevalence of misinformation relating to the COVID-19 health emergency as a key example, this report provides a comprehensive structure for how to streamline and identify ‘best evidence’ to address future crises.
By promoting clear steps for decision-making, this report helps decision-makers to eliminate other things and to focus on best evidence, which will then lead to the creation of sound policies, not just theoretically, but also in practice.